Guatemala: Politics and Possibilities

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Deborah Billings

May 25, 1993: “Today they will criticize me, but tomorrow the people of Guatemala will thank me. —Ex-President Jorge Serrano Elias in a radio and television address announcing the coup. (New York Times, May 26, 1993)

POPULAR MOVEMENT AND trade union members, teachers and students filled the streets of Guatemala City throughout the month of May, vehemently protesting newly-imposed government policies regarding student identification requirements and hikes in electricity rates. Late in the month, student protests spread to towns in the interior of the country and unions staged a nationwide strike.

Predictably, the military command attempted to delegitimize such movements and the mass support which they garnered, as Defense Minister General José Domingo Garcia Samayoa accused Guatemalan insurgency forces, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), of organizing and mobilizing the protestors. Serrano echoed the General’s accusations.

On May 2, secondary school students protested their opposition to new policies requiring school uniforms and student identification cards in order to continue receiving free transportation to and from school. The students stated that this was just another means by which the military would attempt to control them.

On May 11, a seventeen-year-old student was shot and killed by private security agents; shortly afterward, the National Police occupied two secondary schools. A week later, when university students and teachers joined in the struggle, fifty people were injured in a clash with police and two teacher union officials, Carlos Gomez and Jorge Garcia of the National Association of Secondary School Teachers, were charged with treason, terrorism and inciting crime.

Defense Minister Samayoa was quoted as saying “that authorities were using a kind of state of siege” to bring the protests in Guatemala City under control. By May 18, student protests had erupted throughout the country.

At the same time, trade unions and grassroots organizations were mobilizing against various austerity measures, most importantly the tripling of electricity rates. On May 21, sixteen organizations comprising the Labor and Popular Action Unity (UASP) called a general strike to demand the cancellation of the energy hikes and the withdrawal of charges of sedition against Gomez and Garcia, as well as to support student actions.

Serrano responded to such calls by threatening, “We will use whatever force permitted bylaw … we will begin implementing plans that are much more drastic.” He also threatened to impose a state of emergency. Serrano then authorized the national and treasury police and the army into the capital city to suppress the protests. Armored tanks and police dogs filled the streets.

Sensing the momentum of civilian society and feeling itself out of control, the army occupied the capital city on May 21; four days later, on May 25, President Jorge Serrano Elias announced that he would rule by decree to stem a “breakdown in law and order” Moves were immediately made to dissolve the Supreme Court and Congress and to suspend the Constitution, thereby effectively destroying the facade of democracy which has been taking shape in Guatemala since 1986, when the first civilian president in sixteen years, Marco Vmicio Cerezo Arévalo, was inaugurated.

Reports from the mainstream press in the United States and Mexico emphasized the individual nature of the coup, attributing the takeover of power to Serrano himself and, thus, minimizing the critical role of the military The “Serranazo,” as it-has been called, has been likened time and time again to the coup imposed by Peru’s Fujimori in 1992.

But an overview of Guatemalan history and especially of power relations within the country shows this comparison to be misleading. The point is that in Guatemala, the president does not control the army—and hasn’t for thirty-nine years. Thus the military’s claim that Serrano was supported in his actions because he is commander-in-chief and not because the army had a direct role in the coup is dearly fallacious.

This article presents an historical analysis of the Serrano/military coup, the counter-coup, and the installation of Ramiro de Leon Carpio as the present civilian leader of Guatemala. Such changes have implications for grassroots movements, labor unions, returning refugees and civil society in general, and for the directions that these sectors might take. These recent events directly challenge the claims both the U.S. and Guatemalan governments have made since 1986 that democracy is flourishing in this Central American country.

The May 25 Coup

On Tuesday, May 25, President Jorge Serrano Elias announced via radio and television that he was dissolving Congress, the Supreme Court, partially suspending the Constitution, and scrapping the prosecutors’ offices, including that of Human Rights Ombudsman. His rule by decree, he stated, would last only until “law and order” could be reinstated in the country, he called for elections within sixty days for a new national assembly that would discuss changes in the Constitution.

The homes of José Fernando Lobo Dubón, President of the Congress, and Juan José Rodil Peralta, President of the Supreme Court were immediately cordoned off by security forces and Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro de Leon Carpio was held temporarily by military police. Members of Congress who arrived at work had their credentials confiscated. Security forces also sent a list of names of labor and student leaders, journalists, and opposition politicians to migration officials, thereby preventing them from leaving the country.

The media, and especially the press, was unabashedly targeted as radio waves were immediately taken over by the government which then played marimba music throughout the day. Siglo Veintiuno and La Prensa press headquarters were surrounded by military forces and thus were prevented from both producing and distributing the news. Diario El Grdfico, directed by Jorge Carpio, political rival of Serrano in the 1990 elections, was not surrounded. All three, however, were subject to severe governmental censorship, an act prohibited by Article 35 of the Constitution.

The Historical Context

Guatemala has been ruled by its armed forces, either directly by military dictators or indirectly by puppet civilian presidents, since 1954 when a CIA/Washington-sponsored coup put an end to ten years of democratically elected rule. Since then the military has maintained its control over society through broad-based repressive tactics—which have increased dramatically each time grassroots movements have gained momentum—and coups. Participatory democracy, accompanied by civilian control over society, has yet to be reinstated.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, social movements grew and interfaced with one another. Unionists actively organized, insurgency groups increased in size and popularity, and peasants—both indigenous and Ladino—joined forces in the newly formed Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC) to fight rising subsistence costs and exploitative labor practices. These movements met with severe repression as military and paramilitary death squads terrorized the population in an effort to destroy newly emerging grassroots social forces. By 1970, 3,000 to 10,000 civilians had been murdered; the military has never been held even partially responsible for these deaths.

In July of 1978, after a fraudulent election General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia took office. His military regime was bent on destroying popular movements and, as such, launched large scale, selective repression by 1979-1980. Initially teachers, lawyers, students, journalists and labor organizers were targeted as they were “disappeared,” tortured and extra-judicially assassi nated. The violence then spread to the northern highlands as the army attempted to destroy the most popular of the armed insurgency groups, the EGP, whose main areas of operation were located in the departments of Huehuetenango, El Quiche and the Verapaces.

By 1981, massacres throughout the highland region reached their zenith as the army attempted to destroy the insurgency’s social base of support, the highland indigenous population. Community life was attacked as whole villages were razed and women, men and children were brutally massacred, tortured and terrorized. By the army’s own accounting, over 440 indigenous villages were completely destroyed.

A military coup in 1982 left the presidency in the hands of General Efrain Ribs Montt, a staunch evangelical who once stated to the U.S. press after a meeting with Ronald Reagan: “We have no scorched earth policy. We have a policy of scorched communists.” Like the actions taken in this most recent coup, Rios Montt dissolved the Congress and suspended the Constitution, thereby enabling the military to take control of the country.

Civil Patrols, later known as Voluntary Committees for Civilian Self-Defense, were installed by the military throughout highland communities. This system effectively undermined local power and authority structures, tore communities apart by obliging neighbors to spy on neighbors, and forced 500,000 to a million men to serve in army operations as civilians. “Model villages” or “development poles” were also erected and controlled by the military where large sectors of the more than one million internally displaced Guatemalans were relocated. Another estimated 250,000 fled in search of refuge just over the border in southern Mexico.

In August of 1983, General Rios Montt was deposed by Minister of Defense, General Oscar Humberto Mejia VIctores, under whom human rights abuses continued. All tolled, from 1978-1984, 100-200,000 civilians were killed, over 40,000 were TMdisappeared,” 36,000 were widowed, 125,000 children were orphaned and over a million were displaced. And this happened in a country the size of Ohio with a population of less than 9 million.

The “Democratic” Phase

In 1986, Viniclo Cerezo was sworn in as the first civilian president Guatemala had in sixteen years. Why, one might reasonably ask, was the military willing to hold elections and to allow a civilian to occupy the executive office at this particular historical juncture? The army had seen itself as “victorious”; its power and domination was embedded in the structure of Guatemalan society so completely that civilian rule could not threaten its authority International pressure also played a part in pushing the military to hold elections as a wave of “democracy” was sweeping Latin America. “Democracy,” however, was defined in the narrowest of terms—the electoral process—and the military found it relatively simple to comply with such terms.

During Cerezo’s tenure, popular movements, many of which arose directly out of the violence of the early 1980s, capitalized immediately on newly opened spaces within Guatemalan society. Groups comprised of widows, displaced persons and families of the disappeared, as well as trade unionists, peasants, teachers and students, through various actions and protests, demanded active inclusion in the democratic process. The military, however, defined the boundaries of these spaces; those who went beyond the confines were punished by torture and death. Thus, the army attempted to strateically control the degree to which civil society could actively participate in its recovery of the past and in its own creation.

Thus while popular movements grew in popularity and effectiveness during Cerezo’s tenure, disappearances, torture and extrajudical executions continued and actually increased dramatically during 1990, his last year in office. These concurrent events speak to the military’s constant and brutal vigilance over those involved in the popular movements They also attest to the strength, courage and tenacity of those involved in grassroots social movements for, as we will see, these groups continue to be amongst the most vocal and influential actors in Guatemalan society today.

In January 1991, power was peacefully transferred from one civilian president to another Jorge Serrano Elias, representing the right-wing party, Movimiento de Accion SolidariSolidarity Action Movement (MAS), was not a favorite in the 1990 election and most probably won on the basis of a large number of protest votes against the other candidates. Throughout his two years in office, he relied heavily on an unstable coalition of Christian Democrats (P C) and National Centrist Union (UNC) members within Congress in order to pass his proposals for economic reform, since within the legislative branch MAS was weak.

Serrano, an evangelical, served under General Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983) as President of the Council of State, a hand-picked “Congress” during the months of dictatorial rule. In 1985, he ran for president as the candidate for a coalition of two moderate-right parties and lost, coming in third after Jorge Carpio Nicolle and Vinido Cerezo. He founded MAS in 1986.

In Guatemala, 2% of the population owns 65% of the land; while 5% receives almost 55% of the Gross National Product. Obviously, any economic recovery plan which does not address this profound inequality is bound to fail for the majority of the population. Yet, the goals Serrano outlined for his administration were moderate: to lower unemployment (standing at 45% of the economically active population), to get “beyond” the economic crisis and to negotiate a peace plan between the government and the IJRNG. His proposals for economic revival and employment focused on the nontraditional export sector (including the maquiladora industry) and massive privatization schemes—approaches that only reify inequalities in ownership.

The peace negotiations have been stalled numerous times on proposals around the problem of human rights and recent talks have resulted in governmental threats against the URNG. On May 19, governmental representative Manuel Conde announced, “the Guatemalan government has reached its limit … it cannot make any more concessions.” He stated that the government would redouble its efforts “to defeat the URNG militarily,” an approach on which Serrano and the army were in complete agreement.

Despite the fact that in 1991 Serrano created a cabinet-level Human Rights Commission and a Human Rights Ombudsman (a position filled by Ramiro de Leôn Carpio), human rights abuses have increased. The office of the Human Rights Ombudsman recorded 456 extrajudicial executions for 1991, and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA recorded 482 such executions for 1992. An Amnesty International report dated May 18, 1993 states that political murder and violations continue to go unpunished and that, “[t]he government that promised to protect human rights has failed.”

Throughout this period the popular and labor movements, refugees (both within Mexico and those returning to Guatemala), families and friends of the murdered and disappeared, students, and activists have continued to organize. But a recent upsurge in activity within all of these civil sectors is key to explaining this year’s events of late May-early June.

The government/military felt its tight rein on the country slipping over the past years with the successful prosecution of ex-Presidential Military Guard Noel de Jesus Beteta Alvarez in the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, for the exhumation of clandestine cemeteries throughout the country contain’ing the remains of victims of military and paramilitary violence, and with the eviction of the army from the town of Santiago AtItlan (after a brutal massacre).

Additionally, last January 20, approximately 2,500 refugees who had been living in Mexico during the past decade organized their return despite overwhelming obstacles. Since their arrival in the northern Ixcán region, the refugees have spoken out about the military strikes on the neighboring Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs). For its part, the army accused the returnees of participating in a guerrilla strategy to create “liberated zones” free of military control.

As the municipal government elections approached last April-May period, the weak coalition within Congress on which Serrano had depended on so heavily fell apart Serrano had implied in numerous public statements that voting for MAS would facilitate central government funding to municipalities, a clear case of bribery since funding is constitutionally guaranteed. Following the breakup of the coalition, Serrano encountered more difficulties in pushing through his package of neoliberal economic reform policies.

The Coup Players

While Serrano claimed to have undertaken the coup in order to stop corruption and the influence of drug traffickers within the government, he never implicated two of the key participants in the drug trade—the police and security forces. He also used the rhetoric of democracy in an attempt to justify the suspension of citizens’ rights when he stated, I am a democrat, a believer in democracy, and this measure is precisely for the purpose of safeguarding democracy.”

Throughout the initial days of the coup, Defense Minister Samayoa denied that the military had any direct involvement Yet a few days before the coup, members of CONAVIGUA held an interview with Samayoa in which he is quoted as effectively saying, “We are preparing some really beautiful things for you, and for civil society, at the end of May.” The real reason for the coup is clear: the military felt its power and influence over Guatemalan society slipping and invoked a so-called “self coup” to regain its control.

By May 27, the army announced its backing of Serrano. Defense Minister Samayoa stated, “the nation was near chaos and a political plot against the regime existed.’ Armored personnel carriers and troops were sent to repress a demonstration outside of the Supreme Court Building; elsewhere thousands gathered for a “protest mass” at the National Cathedral to pray for the return of the Constitution and for the civic and union leaders whose lives had been threatened.

Congress members also met secretly to ask the army to incarcerate Serrano for unconstitutional acts and, ironically, “to assume its historic and patriotic role and reinstall the constitutional order.” In response, the Coordination of Civil Sectors stated, “Given the conditions in Guatemala, it is impossible for any sector of society to achieve a coup d’etat without the participation of the army. It is unacceptable, then, that the brokers of the coup are now those called to resume constitutional order.”

Response from the international community was, in general, quick to condemn the coup. The Worker’s Party of Brazil issued a statement immediately after Serrano’s announcement, stating that the coup was supported by the military and was thus disrupting the developing democratic process. They demanded that democratic forces throughout Latin America demonstrate their disfavor and that the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs “assume a stance of repudiation to an act that threatens all of Central America.”

Two days after the coup was broadcast, the United States and various European countries announced that they would suspend aid to Guatemala. Washington froze a governmental/economic package worth $50 million, including funds for military and police training, economic development funds and cash support for the government Germany froze $78 million in aid.

Labor rights groups in the United States also called for the revocation of Guatemalan industry’s benefits from the General System of Preferences, by which many Guatemalan products enter U.S. markets tariff free. This request hit businesspeople especially hard. In 1992 alone, over $200 million worth of Guatemalan products were exported to the United States. Business leaders and the military, two sectors with many connections between them, recognized the devastation that U.S. and European trade sanctions could have on the export business that has been keeping Guatemala afloat economically. These international sanctions were key factors in the army’s turnabout.

With such pressures mounting, the Constitutional Court reconvened and stated that since Serrano had no juridical validity, they would not respect his power. At the same time, De Leon Carpio denounced Serrano as an illegitimate leader and, shortly after, went into hiding.

By May 31, the military ousted Serrano, recognizing that its continued support in the face of international pressure would only lead to greater public protest and unrest and would not lead to the resumption of foreign aid and benefits. Serrano fled to El Salvador and is currently residing in Panama, where he has been granted asylum. That same day, the so-called “countercoup” took place: Vice President Gustavo Espina Salguero announced his plans to remain as Head of State (even after Congress had found him ineligible, on the grounds that he had violated the Constitution by supporting Serrano).

The Guatemalan civil sector responded strongly once again, demanding the resignation and prosecution of Espina and Serrano. A National Consensus Body was formed, made up of two parts: 1) the Multi-Sector Social Forum to which various civil sectors, such as UASP religious and indigenous representatives, including Rigoberta Menchü and popular sector leaders belonged and 2) the Coalition for Consensus, to which Guatemala’s most powerful business association (Chamber of Agricultural, Commerical, Industrial and Financial Assodations—CACIF) and opposition political parties belong. The Body staged two demonstrations, drawing 2,000 and 10,000 participants respectively, as leaders such as Rigoberta Menchü demanded the ousting of Espina. A national strike was held with 95% of the workers in thepublic sector participating.

Attorney General Edgar Tuna Valladares also accused Serrano and Espina with violating the Constitution, rebellion, inciting public unrest toward presidents of state institutions, abandoning offices, usurpation of duties, misuse of funds, extortion, and covering up crimes. No investigation has been pursued thus far.

Maintaining Espina as president would have proven fruitless to the army, given the fact that the United States and Europe were not going to resume aid and lift trade sanctions with him in power. As well, civil sector forces were joining with business interests to form a rare, if only temporary, partnership to voice their opposition to the “counter-coup” president On June 5, Espina resigned and fled to Costa Rica where he has been granted asylum.

The National Consensus Body—and especially the CACIF branch—then presented a proposal to the High Command of the Army, outlining conditions for the restoration of government These included reinstating the three branches of the state, reforming the electoral law and the formation of a national body that would include participants of all sectors of Guatemalan society. Interestingly, the conditions did not include the demand, put forth by the Multi-Sector Social Forum branch, that criminal charges be brought against those involved in the coup.

In a surprising turn of events, Congress received approval from the army to install the ex-Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, as the legitimate President of Guatemala. On June 6, he was sworn into office In his acceptance speech he noted that his would be a government of unity, without revenge (that is, without legal proceedings against Serrano, Espina, and top military officials involved in the coup).

His image as a defender of democracy, human rights and justice have won him high praise in international circles. If the aim of the military and business sectors was to resolve the internal crisis so that international aid would be restored, supporting De Leon Carpio was their best option. The proof: Washington resumed all economic, development and military training aid the day following the inauguration.

Lessons of the Struggle Against the Coup

The weakness of “democracy” in Guatemala was fully exposed in recent weeks and clearly showed that more than “fair” elections are needed if a truly democratic society is to take shape.

Recent events in Guatemala highlight the strength and influence which its military forces maintain in the government, despite the guise of civilian rule. The presentation of the National Consensus Body’s proposal to the military illustrates both the power that the army continues to wield in Guatemalan national life and the substantial influence which business leaders had throughout the process of changing leadership.

But the events also highlight the essential role of grassroots movements in demanding social change. Without the massive mobilization protest of the popular sectors it is doubtful that the United States and Europe would have imposed such severe sanctions.

Civil society, including private business interests that have usually sided with the military, did challenge the military’s power through protests and demonstrations. The pressures which both they and the international community mounted combined to impede the maintenance of the military’s handpicked rulers. Instead, the military was persuaded to accept as president an historical adversary, Ramiro de León Carpio.

Demilitarization of the country is crucial if De Leôn’s stated goals of a consolidated democracy and social participation are to become reality. De Leon’s initial replacement of Defense Minister Samayoa with General Roberto Perussina was not an encouraging sign: Perussina was one of the three officers implicated by the Human Rights Commission of Guatemala as directing the coup. However, on June 28 this hardliner was replaced by the more moderate General Mario EnrIquez Morales, an officer who opposed the coup and has been involved in negotiations with the URNG.

De León Carpio stated that the replacement was made in an effort to consolidate democracy. While this is an encouraging sign, a fuller restructuring of the entire military apparatus must be undertaken for significant change to take place.

International pressure does play a vital role in the direction that Guatemala will take. Those of us living in the United States have the responsibility to ensure that the Clinton administration continues to suspend military aid (imposed in 1990 because of the lack of progress in prosecuting human rights abuses involving U.S. citizens). We must also expand that reasoning to include human rights abuses against Guatemalan citizens.

Only through the interaction of civil society participation, demilitarization and international pressure can Guatemala begin to truly establish a participatory and democratic society. Rigoberta Menchü has called for dismantling the triangle of power—comprised of the army, private entrepreneurs and traditionalpolitical parties—which rules Guatemala today. Only then will the popular sectors become an integral part of the decision-making processes in their country.

Sources for this article include: Cerigua Weekly Briefs, Persecution by Proxy. Interpress Service, Witness for Peace, Urgent Action Alert, El Dia: Mexico City, La Prensa: Managua Nicaragua, New York Times, Internet Press, La Jornada: Mexico City.

September-October 1993, ATC 46